If there is such a thing as a titan of TV, director/producer Mimi Leder is one. With a career that goes back to L.A. Law, Leder started producing (and directing) for the critically-acclaimed series China Beach, and moved on to perhaps still her most recognizable credit, ER, for which she served as co-executive producer for 26 episodes, during which she popularized the use of the Steadicam, to make the fast-moving scenes feel more real and effective. Fans of ER and her style of filmmaking will be happy to see some of those same skills come to play in Leder’s new series, The Morning Show, a drama series on Apple TV+ that takes us behind-the-scenes of a popular network television morning program in the wake of a #MeToo scandal. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, The Morning Show has garnered critical acclaim, as well as 8 Emmy award nominations for its inaugural season, including one for Leder, for directing the season finale, “The Interview.”
I spoke to Leder about The Morning Show, about that explosive final episode [SPOILERS AHEAD], and about the challenges of being a female director in an industry that’s changing far too slowly.
Catherine Springer: Congratulations on your ninth Emmy nomination, this one for The Morning Show…
Mimi Leder: Actually it’s my 10th nomination…
Yeah, Emmys.com got it wrong…they wrote nine, but this is my sixth directing and I’ve had four for producing. I don’t mean to count and be obnoxious, but, it is my tenth. And it still feels like the first time!
And you have won once in this category and I believe you’re one of only two women to have done that?
One of three…the person before me was Karen Arthur for Cagney & Lacey, and then I won, and then Reed Morano won for The Handmaid’s Tale. So yeah, in all the years of Emmys, only three women have won. Crazy, huh?
This year, there are three women nominated, including yourself and Lesli Linka Glatter, who I spoke to yesterday and said you were her first call when the nominations came out, you two are good friends, I understand, and you’re bummed to not be walking the red carpet together, but it really is an amazing achievement.
Thank you! Yes, we are dear friends and she is an incredibly brilliant director and human being. And yeah, I wish we could have walked hand-in-hand down the red carpet, women supporting women. That’s what we do, as executive producers who hire women on our shows, how we as fellow directors–fella directors–support each other and support each other’s work. It’s a beautiful thing.
She made a great analogy that men have always played sports and so they are familiar with reaching out and bringing the next one up, and that maybe women need to start taking that same approach. What is your perspective on how we get this to happen more often, creating those opportunities for the women coming behind you?
Well, it is happening. On television it’s far greater than it ever was. On our shows, we have the power to hire, which Lesli and I do, and there are other women who are exec producing and directing who have the power to change that landscape. I’ve been working on it and Lesli has for quite a long time. You know, I hired Lesli on ER. That’s where we met. And I hired many women and I continue to and so does she. And the more we hire each other, the more women will have the opportunity to hone their craft and make some great magic. In all the work I’ve done, there’s only one woman who’s ever hired me, and it was Sherry Lansing, which is amazing! Sherry was a total trailblazer. Women have to support other women. It’s our job to get other younger filmmakers on their path.
Why is the wall so much taller to climb over for women on the film side, compared to the TV side?
I do not know. More women are making films, but not enough. Not enough. For example, what I said about younger women, my daughter, Hannah Leder, and her creative partner Alexandra Kotcheff, if you look on Deadline yesterday, they just got distribution for a film they directed.
Is this The Planters?
You know it?
Yeah, there is some good buzz on it.
Oh yeah? Well, they just sold it theatrically and it’s going to come out in September— I’d love you to interview them! But anyway, they’re amazing young filmmakers and I didn’t help them. Because I’m her mother, of course I gave support and lots of love, but they did this themselves. They said no one’s going to hire us, they crewed it themselves, they co-directed it, co-wrote it, starred in it, Hannah edited it, they did their own costumes. It took them forever to do it, but they did it, and now they’ve sold it. So it’s like, wow you can do it! And you can do it a lot easier than I ever did when I was young. When I started out, I did make a short film, my father and my brother paid for it—it cost $17,000 and I shot it on short ends. I don’t even know if anyone knows what that is anymore… Those are the film ends when we used to have these reels of film that were 1000 ft and if there were like 200 ft left and you had a take that was going to run three minutes, you would take that, you would break the film and those were short ends. And they used to sell the short ends to a short ends house. And then you, as a young filmmaker, would go buy these and shoot your film on these short ends. [laughs] Talk about hard!
But there is a great crop of young talent coming up, and so much of it is female, so we’re getting there…
We’re getting there…and we’re going to get there by doing good work.
Getting to The Morning Show, talk a little about what it’s like to work with this team, particularly Reese Witherspoon, who seems to have made it her life’s mission to produce projects that are women’s stories.
Reese Witherspoon, as an executive producer on The Morning Show, has been an incredible partner. Both Jen Aniston and Reese Witherspoon have been extraordinary partners. There are a group of us women, Kerry Ehrin, myself, Reese, Jen, Lauren Neustadter and Kristin Hahn— and one male, Michael Ellenberg, who created the company Media Res, that put us all together. I mean, Jen and Reese put us all together, we all just came together in our own way. But yes, Reese has been an extraordinary partner. I applaud her vision, with her company, Hello Sunshine, she promotes and produces stories for women, about women, by women. She’s an extraordinary woman who took the reins and reached a certain point in her life where she was able to produce and be in and produce projects that were meaningful to her and meaningful for women and everybody else out in the world. She had the power and the smarts to do that. And Jen as well, with her own company. More and more, you see women taking the reins, saying we can do this, let’s tell stories we want to tell, let’s tell stories we want to see, and it’s inspiring. And I feel so lucky and happy and proud and honored to be working with Reese and Jen and creating this show with Kerry, Kristin and Lauren, it’s and it’s just been quite an experience. This show is really seen through the female gaze, the female lens. We would have, for example, casting sessions and it was all women! Actors would walk in and go, “I’ve never been on an audition where it’s just women!” Because everything has flipped. Things are slipping, not everything, not everybody, but we have a unique show where it’s female-centric.
Talk a little about the support you’ve gotten from Apple. They had a lot riding on this, it was a bit of a gamble for them. Was there a different sort of pressure then you’ve experienced before?
No, not at all. I mean, they were a new streamer and I guess it was a gamble for them, but it was a gamble for us too, them being new. They have been great, supportive partners. For me, it’s been no different working with Apple than working with HBO or any other network. They’re great partners and I’ve really had a good experience–I think we all have.
Well, the show certainly answered the call. I re-watched the last episode and the whole thing felt like a Greek tragedy to me. Everything comes to a head in this last episode, so many powerful moments and scenes. All the bombs that were lit feel like they all go off in one hour. How do you maintain the tone for that? I was wondering if any of your ER muscle memory came back?
[laughs] Well, I felt that we had to really move through this episode and go on all cylinders. I felt like it was a very operatic episode. I felt, as you said, everything was paid off in this episode, all the bombs went off. Alex’s character, performed brilliantly by Jen Aniston, when she has her breakdown on air and in that moment where she’s pacing and she sits down, she has this epiphany, this breakthrough explosion and finally finds her voice and speaks her truth. And she also had to come to grips with her complicity in this new world, this #MeToo world. And so many people who work in the halls of power and have seen misconduct and abuses of power, so often it was “well this is how it is” and people would just turn their head and roll our eyes. But our character in that scene, Alex, had this breakthrough and had to come to grips with her truth and and it was very powerful.
And my editors–our editors, Carole Kravetz Aykanian and Aleshka Ferrero–are brilliant. When I found this escalator in our building to shoot the scene where Alex agrees to firing Chip, it was originally written in a hallway, but when I found the escalator, I thought, this is perfect, because you can’t look away, you can’t hide. She’s coming down the escalator, and he knows he’s going up to be fired. She knows what’s going to happen and he knows. My editors put this incredible opera piece to it and showed it to me and I was just crying, it was so perfect. So that sort of set the tone for the rest of the episode. I’m talking in an editorial sense, when we were putting music and then we found Vivaldi for the end sequence because it was like a tragic opera and it helped to emphasize all the complexities our characters were going through. For example, when Chip comes to tell Mitch that Hannah is dead, and he just wails on him and they are beating the crap out of each other, it’s kind of ridiculous, these white, middle-aged guys rolling on the floor, but we played it very real, played it really kind of scrappy, all handheld, and I put the Vivaldi to it and it was just perfect. I don’t know if it was perfect, but it just felt right.
In terms of creating a sequence and trying to keep the motor running, there were so many peaks and valleys. The episode is called “The Interview,” and I kept the show moving, whether I did it in slow motion, or Steadicam, or handheld running with the actors, the interview itself I felt needed great simplicity and subtlety and needed to be shot in the classic way. And the writing was so great, we were working to this moment for 10 episodes and Hannah’s story was so powerful, I didn’t need to do anything except honor it and focus on the performances and the truth of the characters. Reese listened beautifully and Gugu Mbatha-Raw bared her soul. Crushing.
Most people will be discovering Gugu Mbatha-Raw for the first time here, she’s been incredible in so many things. How was that scene to shoot?
I cleared the room. I didn’t want to rehearse it because I don’t like to rehearse a lot because I like to just capture it on the day, in the moment. I don’t really like to set anything because I really believe in exploration and surprise and keeping it real and finding it on the day and in the moment when we’re doing it. So we did the lines, and I wanted to choreograph it to figure out when Hannah would stand up so the camera could capture it. I set up my cameras. I cleared out to set, there were very few people on the set when we were shooting this, it was very quiet. I wanted to respect this moment that was about to happen and then when we did it, I mean, I think there’s about three takes we did on Gugu, and I think a lot of what’s on the screen is in that first take, that ends up in the cut. She’s amazing! They both are. But Gugu is great.
Yes, she should be a superstar…she will be.
She will be!
I saw you had a quote that The Morning Show you related to in a really personal and gutteral way, like ER and The Leftovers. Is that accurate, and what did you mean?
Oh boy did I say that? [laughs] I would say that The Morning Show really dove into the #MeToo movement. The #MeToo movement hadn’t started when the scripts were being written. So we changed course, of course, and brought it into the show because we had to. This show explores the nuances of sexual misconduct and why was this abuse tolerated and concealed. It explores complicity and the truth. I would say this show goes really deep and, at the same time, there’s humor in the show because you can’t do really strong drama, I think, without some great comedy in it.
I think most women have some experience–not all, but a lot of women do. Most women, I think, go through life and experience abuse on some level. And so going through that exploration was personal for every woman on that show. It’s been a really strong journey for all of us to be on together.
You’ve been in this industry for over 40 years, what was it like to examine it this way? I’m sure you have your own memories and stories…
How did that feel?
I’ve been directing for 33 years and I have stories. Everybody has stories. The things that happen to you, the slights, being pushed aside, subtle harassments, they make you stronger. They can make you or break you. For me, working on this show was very cathartic. I think it was cathartic for all of us. Just great writing, great characters, told and created through a female lens.
You said catharsis and all I can think of is The Leftovers.
I’ve never experienced a more deeply cathartic experience than watching that show. Have you ever worked on a show like that before?
No. I would have to say, The Leftovers was, for me, the highlight of, or one of the great highlights of, my career. Working with Damon Lindelof, and bringing his words to light. It was cathartic, it was life-changing, it was life-embracing, it was beautiful and painful and gorgeous. It was a real love story, ultimately. There was a great exploration of who we are, why we’re here, what is the meaning of life. And I’m not even sure I know the answer to it, I don’t know if anyone does, but that journey to love, I guess maybe that is the answer. I think John Lennon and Paul McCartney said it all: all you need is love. And I think The Leftovers was a deep exploration into the human psyche and human behavior. I dream and pray that one day Damon and I will be reunited.
And we would be the better for it!
Well, I have to say I’m so looking forward to the second season of The Morning Show. You have us all hooked. You knew you had two seasons, so you were able to end that way…
I think you’re going to like it!
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mimi Leder is nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the episode “The Interview” from The Morning Show, which is currently available to stream on Apple TV+.